As a distraction from the throes of my impending dissertation deadline, I guiltily managed to sneak in some pleasure reading in the last couple of weeks. Many might have turned to light escapist pageturners; I turned to Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.
Perhaps unfairly, I expected a diatribe on the dangers of the permissive society, nostalgising over the traditional social institutions that kept order amongst the pliant masses. To a limited extent, that’s what I got. The main point instead, however, was that liberalism, in the leftist ‘progressive’ and the conservative ‘economic’ kind, had declared a ‘war on nature’.
Through the subordination of human connection and the creation of legislative and scientific ‘technology’, liberalism’s pursuit of individual desires and interests had brought economic good, social cohesion, and environmental wellbeing to their knees. Deneen argued that, for liberal philosophers, total economic and social liberty from arbitrary boundaries such as nature and religion reflected human nature better than pursuing virtue. This made cultivating mutual trust and cultural norms obsolete, and created an impersonal ‘anti-culture’ that asked only for loyalty to the state as an arbiter of liberty.
Deneen’s emotive assertions provided the background score to my second great dissertation distraction: the current Brexit high noon. Parliamentary certainties have been dropping like flies as MPs have crossed the floor either by their own accord or against their will. As the academic Matthew Goodwin argued on Twitter, it seems that we are witnessing wholesale changes in the alignments of party identities in our political system. Whereas the two main ‘catch-all’ parties had been considered broad churches for decades, radicalisation from both the Corbynite left and the Moggite right has purified the parties’ ideological offerings into inflexible dogmas.
The minor parties do not escape this radicalisation either. The Liberal Democrats have only resurged in popularity due to its transformation into a single-issue, anti-Brexit party. The Scottish Nationalists have as strong a mandate as ever to push the spectre of Scottish independence through any negotiation of a ‘remain alliance’. The Democratic Unionists seem equally as resilient in their rejection of the backstop in Northern Ireland, even if whispers emerge in the newspapers of a breakthrough.
So how do we come back to Deneen? Deneen argues that liberty has long strayed from its classical meaning of freedom from tyranny through self-control and public good. Nowadays, it stands for individual desire so long as ostensible harm to others is prevented. Socially, this has created a populace and political class uninterested in cooperation - they prioritise protecting their rights to pursue their own interests and ideologies.
Economically, liberalism has diluted the extent to which governments have power over an independent industrial class and their own technocratic economic policies. This complex relationship holds governments to ransom, eager to ensure a healthy treasury. These forces, according to Deneen, push the focus of political conflict into identity and social division.
This lens provides at least three key insights to Brexit. Firstly, we see a people split into a myriad identities. National, regional, urban, suburban, rural. Young, old, middle-aged, student, pensioner. European, Brexiteer, Remoaner, nativist, globalist, optimist, pessimist, fear-mongering, bigoted. Corbynite, Centrist Dad, Spartan, rebel, independent. Where our biggest sphere of control has shifted to our self-identification and the identification of others, we are becoming ever more entrenched in our perceptions of how things ‘should be’.
Secondly, the government, the parliament, and the people are leaning further and further on state legislation or questionably-obtained mandates for vindication. These are formed or interpreted to push through their own narrow interpretation of what ‘should be’, rather than cooperating as a society to work out what ‘can be’ (or even what ‘is’).
Finally, we see a people split across an ever-thinning level of meaningful coexistence. The prime minister’s ‘left-behind towns’ have been left behind because we evaluate our options with greater social or economic elasticity than ever before. In a world where personal and professional relations, identities, and worldviews can increasingly become a matter of choice for those who can afford it, we are becoming ever more unrelatable to one another. Liberalism has created globalisation’s opportunities, but has split society into clans who either embrace elasticity or hunker down on their original identities. If compromise exists, discourse doesn’t show it.
Deneen’s lens shouldn’t serve to legitimise some of the Brexiteer rhetoric that we’ve heard over the past three years. The misalignment of the economy towards the cities — and London in particular — is not a Brexit-related issue. Neither are many other policy issues that have been blamed on the behemoth in Brussels. Equally, British internationalism is, excluding Britain’s imperial past, an established political and social tradition.
Claiming that such people are ‘citizens of nowhere’ leads to unfair over-generalisations. Deneen’s preference is for local community rule based on diverse regional cultures, greater modesty, and stricter adherence to Western classical thought. This is as unrealistic as it is unhelpful in curing the polarisation of modern society.
His book should instead be put to criticising our own abilities to think beyond our personal perspectives. Thatcherism’s liberalist leitmotiv of ‘there is no such thing as society’ has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, culminating in an electorate that refuses to compromise. Factions read the political zeitgeist and promote ‘cakeism‘ for their chosen clans. The problem is that an electorate still needs a society to function; if the latter decays, nothing can be decided in the common good. The UK’s fundamental constitutional makeup relies heavily on decisions made in the common good.
In this eternal chess match, Britain has gone precisely nowhere. One side calls check, the other side escapes to survive another turn. Even though parties’ core voter bases have become narrower, Brexit deadlines are extended because no-one can bear to be the one that causes a great demographic rupture for the next election.
Our parties have fractured into warring factions that have little interest in reaching across the aisle. Instead, they fervently hope to be the ones that were proven right. Meanwhile, public mood has become prone to animosity, egged on by divisive referendums and bellicose rhetoric. Society has its own warring factions, each a mystery and an enemy to the other.
We citizens must be the ones to break the cycle. We have the power to see beyond the individualist bubble and make a compromise about the fundamental nature of our society. Maybe then, the parties will listen and learn.